Vintage specialists share their favorite works of midcentury modernism


Dealer’s Choice

Midcentury modern vintage design has never been more popular. With so many options on the secondary market—an array of styles, materials, and price points—the hardest part about being a vintage lover is choosing your favorites. The struggle is very real! So we reached out to our network of seasoned dealers to find out which pieces from the midcentury, in their view, stand out from the rest. Read on to see their favorites.

 

Venini Vase by Carlo Scarpa, 1940s Photo © Galerie Stimmung Augustin David, Galerie Stimmung ’s Carlo Scarpa for Venini (ca. 1940s)

Paris-based Augustin David is a lifelong history buff—a penchant that informed and enhanced his many childhood trips to flea markets with his parents. In each object he comes across, he sees the imprint of the politics and cultures of another time and place. After studying law and art history in university, he went into auctioneering. This, however, turned out to be the wrong move for him. “I quickly felt that volume mattered above all,” he explains. “I never had the time,” he adds, “to study in depth all the objects that passed under my hammer.”

A year ago, David opened Galerie Stimmung, where he now has all the time in the world to indulge his fascination with vintage objects. “I approach my gallery as a home where arts converge with history,” he says, “and my expertise and enjoyment are a part of my daily existence.” It’s hard not to envy David’s work-life balance: “I am passionate about what I do; I investigate, research, and discover things every day.”

David’s love for the bygone artifacts knows no bounds. When pressed, though, he admits that the years surrounding World War II are very special to him. “I am particularly interested in the transition from rural to urban, from handcraft to industry, that intensified during the 1940s.” Complexity excites David, and the ’40s brought sweeping changes that generated conditions for seemingly contradictory movements. “From France and Italy to Finland and Japan, there was at the same time the steep rise of modernist design alongside a revival of traditional, regional arts and crafts.”

David cites the glasswork of Italian architect-designer Carlo Scarpa, produced by Venini in the ‘40s, as an ideal case in point, because it achieved a “difficult synthesis between the celebration of Murano glass tradition and a progressive attempt to rethink what contemporary art-glass could be.” He goes on: “Scarpa rehabilitated forgotten techniques while creating novel colors and shapes of incredible wealth and purity. The vase in my collection, which was designed around 1936 and produced about ten years after, is an example of an exquisite simplicity—demonstrating a search for perfect balance and proportion. It unfolds with a delicate lightness in a cohesive form that magnifies and reflects a delicately technical achievement in the service of evolution.”

 

Revolt Chair by Friso Kramer for Ahrend De Cirkel, 1953 Photo © Ahrend Joop Schot, Artbrokerdesign ’s Friso Kramer’s Revolt Chair (1953)

Back in the 1990s, Dutch dealer Joop Schot of Artbrokerdesign sold computer systems to futures traders for a living; privately, though, he worked on his collection of contemporary design—pieces by Philippe Starck and Bořek Šípek, for example. Just as competition from Dell was becoming untenable, Schot had a chance encounter with a veteran vintage dealer in Antwerp, who took him under his wing and changed the course of his professional life. After a few years of mentorship, Schot started his own vintage design business in Bergen op Zoom, Netherlands.

Since then, Schot’s always kept a keen eye on trends in the secondary market. Around 2005, he noticed the great success that French dealers were having with midcentury French design, by the likes of Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand. He realized that no one was building a comparable market for midcentury Dutch. He seized the moment, and ever since, he’s been refining his expertise alongside an impressive collection in this area, especially the inimitable work of Friso Kramer. Three years ago, in partnership with Galerie Catherine Houard, Schot mounted Paris’s first exhibition dedicated to Kramer. Most recently, he was asked to loan works for an exhibition and monograph on Dutch artist-designer Constant Nieuwenhuijs, currently on view at the Cobra Museum of Modern Art in Amstelveen.

Schot's Friso Kramer exhibition in Paris, 2013 Photo © Artbrokerdesign For Schot, the 1950s were a magical time for design. He’s especially drawn to pieces that were exhibited at the 1958 Brussels World Expo. That moment in time, according to Schot, was brimming with possibilities. “Europe was successfully rebuilding and the opportunities for young designers were enormous,” he explains. “New technologies invented during the war opened up new modes of production, and people in general were embracing innovation.” For Schot, this spirit is captured perfectly in Kramer’s classic Revolt Chair, designed 1953 and produced by Ahrend De Cirkel. It garnered praise at both the 1954 Triennale in Milan and the Brussels World Expo in 1958—and went on to become a staple of offices and university classrooms across the Netherlands for years to come.

 

Elizabeth Chair by Ib Kofod-Larsen, 1956 Photo © Wright Aaron FitzGerald, Dagmar London ’s Ib Kofod-Larsen’s Elizabeth Chair (1956)

Like many vintage dealers, London-based Aaron FitzGerald was driven to his career by passion. After years in graphic design, he started restoring found 20th-century pieces just for fun. Within a few years, this side project became a full-fledged business. Today, Dagmar London operates from a brick-faced townhouse in the Stoke Newington neighborhood and specializes in furniture and ceramics from the heyday of Scandinavian modernism. FitzGerald expresses a fondness for all the big names in midcentury design, from the US and Brazil to Europe. But it’s the Great Danes—Hans Wegner, Finn Juhl, Kai Kristiansen, Niels Møller, for instance—that really set his eyes alight.

When asked to choose one piece that best captures his taste, he cites Ib Kofod-Larsen’s Elizabeth Chair, designed in 1956 and produced by master cabinetmakers Christensen & Larsen in Denmark. “My favorite period is probably 1945-1959,” he explains. “Danish designers like Kofod-Larsen were breaking new ground and moving furniture design on from the more traditional styles of their predecessors, such as Frits Henningsen and Kaare Klint. This generation of furniture, however, was still made by hand in small quantities—before industrialized furniture production took over in the 1960s. The artisanal production method lends an organic, unique quality to the pieces, which can really be appreciated up close.”

 

Mr Chair by George Mulhauser for Plycraft, ca. 1960 Photo © Wright Patrick Christmann, Velvet Point ’s George Mulhauser’s Mr. Chair (c. 1960)

“I’ve been fascinated by old things since my early childhood—from rummaging through my grandparents house in Alsace to strolling through flea markets  in Strasbourg,” says Patrick Christmann of Velvet Point in Karlsruhe, Germany. Through adulthood, Christmann’s obsession only grew, fueled by his many treasure hunts though Central and Eastern Europe. About 10 years ago, he realized he was running out of space to keep all his beloved design finds. So he partnered up with likeminded Birgit Mohr and Georgios Papapostolou and become a dealer. “There’s nothing better than making your passion into your profession,” he muses.

Christmann describes himself as a generalist who enjoys restoring and refreshing all manner of vintage furniture and objects. “Choosing the right color and material to maintain the original character of the piece,” he says, “is always an exciting challenge.” But, like FitzGerald, he holds a special place in his heart for the postwar era. “There was so much power and creativity after the long years of sadness and austerity,” he says.

Christmann’s favorite symbol of that creative boom time? The under-the-radar Mr. Chair by American architect-designer George Mulhauser, designed around 1960 and produced for a short time by Massachusetts-based masters of molded plywood furniture, Plycraft. You may notice that Mr. Chair has a lot in common with Herman Miller’s Eames Lounge (1957). That’s likely because Plycraft actually produced furniture for Herman Miller in the 1960s. Another fun fact: Mulhauser worked for years in the office of renowned designer George Nelson, who eventually admitted that Mulhauser was the true designer behind Nelson’s iconic Coconut Chair (1955).

 

Joe Colombo in his Elda Chair, 1963 Photo © Joe Colombo Studio Oliver Seitz, Time Tunnel ’s Joe Colombo’s Elda Chair (1963)

Oliver Seitz of Zurich-based Time Tunnel has always been a collector. “When I was a child,” he says, “I would collect bird feathers, little bones, and butterflies from the forest.” When he moved to San Francisco in the late 1980s, he fell in love with design from the 1960s. When he returned to Zurich in the ’90s, he decided to bring a bit of Haight-Ashbury with him. The early incarnation of Time Tunnel was dedicated to all things plastic and Pop Art—no wood allowed.

Today, Time Tunnel occupies a two-storied space in the Viadukt market of Zurich and showcases furniture, lighting, and accessories from across the 20th century, especially the work of Swiss designers like Max Bill and Jakob Muller. Fine wood abounds. Still, Seitz hasn’t lost his love for space age and hippy chic.

“My favorite style still comes out of the 1960s—it was such a colorful time with a lot of new influences and new materials,” Seitz says. He adds, “So many ’60s objects embody this big belief in the future.” When asked to name a piece that embodies the forward-facing era, Seitz goes to Italian Joe Colombo’s Elda Chair, designed in 1963 and put into production by Italian manufacturer  (and now produced by Longhi). Named for Colombo’s wife, the Elda was one of the first easy chairs designed in molded fiberglass; for cushion, Colombo added looping rolls of leather upholstery. Now it can be found in the permanent collections of museums around the world, including MoMA, the Louvre, Vitra, and more.

 

* Images for the Elizabeth Chair and Mr. Chair courtesy of Wright Auction House; Elda Chair courtesy of Joe Colombo Studio

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